At the height of the preppy craze in the US some 30 years ago, you could scarcely walk down the street without running into someone wearing one of fashion's best known brand icons: the Lacoste crocodile. According to Lacoste's communications material, its crocodile was the first brand emblem to be displayed externally on an article of clothing. The year was 1933, and whether its claim is accurate or not, it seems the whole idea started as a joke.
Named for designer and French tennis player Ren? Lacoste, the brand inadvertently launched when he wore one of his own unique, white jersey petit piqu? knit shirts to the 1926 US Open-and won.
Lacoste was dubbed "the Alligator" by the American press after rumors surfaced regarding a wager with the captain of the French Davis Cup Team involving a suitcase made of alligator skin. According to Lacoste, the nickname stuck because it "conveyed the tenacity I displayed on the tennis courts, never letting go of my prey!" He had a friend draw a crocodile, which was promptly embroidered onto the blazers he wore while on court.
The crocodile emblem eventually became the rave of elite tennis fans everywhere. In 1933, Lacoste launched his brand, La Societe Chemise Lacoste, with partner Andr? Gillier, president of one of the largest French knitwear manufacturing companies of the time.
Together they produced the breathable knit tennis shirts Lacoste designed, complete with the crocodile logo prominently displayed on the chest. Lacoste and Gillier went on to produce golf and sailing clothing as well as tennis shirts. In the early fifties, they introduced the items in a variety of colors and began exporting Lacoste to the US, positioning their brand as a luxury sport must-have. The strategy paid off.
In the mid-sixties, Ren? Lacoste passed his management duties on to his son Bernard, who expanded the product line to include fragrances, sunglasses and footwear, while growing profit margins exponentially.
Unfortunately, this prosperous trend was not to last. In 1969, General Mills acquired the brand and bred it with another brand called Izod. General Mills proceeded to slash the price point and send Izod Lacoste shirts to mass market, making the product available almost everywhere and all but killing the luxury positioning.
In partnership with French clothing licensor Devanlay, Lacoste finally regained control of stateside distribution in the early nineties. Palm Beach and Bal Harbor, Florida, were targeted as prime locations for their upscale, conservative luxury target-but it was slow going.
Today, Lacoste is enjoying a renaissance under former Levi Strauss executive Robert Siegel, who made his name with the profitable and practical Dockers brand in 1986. Since Siegel joined Lacoste in 2002, sales have skyrocketed by 800 percent, with the US as Lacoste's leading territory. His timing was perfect, as other seventies vintage brands like Puma and Pucci carried tremendous cachet.
By jacking up the price point, Siegel reclaimed Lacoste's luxury status. Today, the brand is considered one of the most expensive tennis shirts on the market, beating out Ralph Lauren and other high-end competitors.
French designer Christophe Lemaire, creative director of the company since 2000, updated and elevated Lacoste products. Lacoste expanded its distribution by adding new licensing agreements with Pentland (footwear) and Samsonite (bags and leathergoods) to the already established relationship with clothing license Devanlay.
Another factor that has helped bring Lacoste back into favor is endorsement deals with today's hottest, young sports talent, such as American tennis star Andy Roddick and master golf champion Jos? Maria Olazabal.
Bernard Lacoste died last year, but the Lacoste brand remains in the family, with younger brother Michel Lacoste at the helm. It's taken many generations of effort, but the tenacious, innovative spirit of Ren? Lacoste should live on, thanks in no small part to the firm's emblematic logo.